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Republican senators revolt over coronavirus proposal

Senate Republicans are deeply divided over their own coronavirus package, underscoring the uphill challenge for the party as they hunt for leverage in talks on the fifth stimulus bill.

GOP leadership and the White House unveiled their own approximately $1 trillion bill this week, in what was supposed to represent a unified negotiating stance by the administration and Senate Republicans as they start talks with House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Health Care: Biden unveils virus plan and urges patience | Fauci says it's 'liberating' working under Biden | House to move quickly on COVID-19 relief Overnight Defense: House approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee | Biden to seek five-year extension of key arms control pact with Russia | Two more US service members killed by COVID-19 On The Money: Pelosi says House will move immediately on COVID-19 relief | Biden faces backlash over debt | 900,000 more Americans file for unemployment benefits MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerNRSC chair says he'll back GOP incumbents against Trump primary challengers Schumer becomes new Senate majority leader US Chamber of Commerce to Biden, Congress: Business community 'ready to help' MORE (D-N.Y.)

But just a day later, several GOP senators are trashing their own party’s proposal, which they expect will only get worse during talks with Democrats, and predicting mass defections on the final coronavirus bill. 

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“It’s a mess. I can’t figure out what this bill’s about,” said Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleySenate approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee For Biden, a Senate trial could aid bipartisanship around COVID relief Senate Democrats file ethics complaint against Hawley, Cruz over Capitol attack MORE (R-Mo.). “They’re going to go negotiate with Pelosi. We have no idea what the final bill will be, and we’ll be the last to know.”

Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.) added that among Republicans “we have unity in disagreement.” Meanwhile, Sen. Ben SasseBen SasseSenate approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee Budowsky: Democracy won, Trump lost, President Biden inaugurated Pompeo labels China's treatment of Uighurs 'genocide' MORE (R-Neb.) said the negotiations were taking place between “two big government Democrats,” Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven MnuchinPence delivers coronavirus task force report to Biden Treasury imposes additional sanctions on Cuba over allegations of 'serious human rights abuse' Treasury Department sanctions inner circle of Russian agent Derkach for election interference MORE and Pelosi. 

“This proposal is not targeted to fix precise problems — it’s about Democrats and Trumpers competing to outspend each other,” Sasse said.

Republicans say it's basically guaranteed there will be GOP defections on the fifth relief bill. Two GOP chairmen predicted that roughly half of the 53-member caucus could ultimately vote "no."

“You can see a bunch of people already pushing back that we haven't spent phase three yet and concerns about the deficit,” said Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTrump selects South Carolina lawyer for impeachment trial Democrats formally elect Harrison as new DNC chair McConnell proposes postponing impeachment trial until February MORE (R-S.C.), a close ally of President TrumpDonald TrumpIran's leader vows 'revenge,' posting an image resembling Trump Former Sanders spokesperson: Biden 'backing away' from 'populist offerings' Justice Dept. to probe sudden departure of US attorney in Atlanta after Trump criticism MORE’s. “If Mitch [McConnell] can get half the conference, that'd be quite an accomplishment.”

Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntBipartisan Senate gang to talk with Biden aide on coronavirus relief A Day in Photos: The Biden Inauguration GOP senator calls Biden's COVID-19 relief plan a 'non-starter' MORE (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership, added that “the previous COVID bills have passed almost unanimously, and I think that’s the exception rather than the rule.” 

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Significant Republican opposition would mark a U-turn from March’s $2.2 trillion coronavirus bill that passed the Senate in a 96-0 vote. Other coronavirus bills have passed with only a handful of "no" votes. 

Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneNRSC chair says he'll back GOP incumbents against Trump primary challengers Biden steps into debt fight on Capitol Hill McConnell faces conservative backlash over Trump criticism MORE (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican senator, said it was too soon to know how much GOP opposition there would be but that it wouldn’t be unanimous support. 

“I don’t think we know where our members are yet. I mean, it’s early on in a process that is probably going to take a while to fully conclude,” Thune said. “We’re not going to be able to write a bill that we get every Republican on, we know that.” 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump selects South Carolina lawyer for impeachment trial McConnell proposes postponing impeachment trial until February For Biden, a Senate trial could aid bipartisanship around COVID relief MORE (R-Ky.) said Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Sights and sounds from Inauguration Day Trump leaves White House, promises to be back in 'some form' LIVE INAUGURATION COVERAGE: Biden signs executive orders; press secretary holds first briefing MORE would take the lead in the talks but acknowledged that GOP senators were divided. 

“I think it’s a statement of the obvious that I have members who are all over the lot on this,” McConnell said. “This is a complicated problem. We’ve done the best we can to develop a consensus among the broadest number of Republican senators.” 

Republicans raised concerns during a closed-door GOP lunch about the price tag of the coronavirus deal growing. Republicans stuck to their goal of a $1 trillion top line, but GOP senators are worried that it will tick upward as Mnuchin and Meadows negotiate with Democrats. 

“There’s a lot of discussion, expressed concern, that we stick to the lower number of a trillion rather than start talking already about where we might land. ... Too much drift to the left, you lose more Republicans and pretty soon you’ve put the whole process in the hands of the Democrats,” said Sen. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerGroup of GOP senators seeks to block Biden moves on Paris, Keystone McConnell faces conservative backlash over Trump criticism McConnell keeps GOP guessing on Trump impeachment MORE (R-N.D.). 

Graham added that “people [are] worried about the top-line number” and “the amount to be spent is a concern.” 

GOP senators are publicly pouring cold water on either key provisions or the plan altogether, which came together during weeks of closed-door negotiations.

“I have problems with a number of provisions. I’ll wait and see what the final product looks like, but I’m pretty skeptical about the way it seems to be shaping up,” said Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyGovernment used Patriot Act to gather website visitor logs in 2019 Appeals court rules NSA's bulk phone data collection illegal Dunford withdraws from consideration to chair coronavirus oversight panel MORE (R-Pa.). 

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzFor Biden, a Senate trial could aid bipartisanship around COVID relief Senate Democrats file ethics complaint against Hawley, Cruz over Capitol attack Poll: Majority of voters support bipartisan commission to probe potential irregularities in the 2020 election MORE (R-Texas) said that he was “very much” concerned and there was “vigorous discussion” and “sharp disagreement” among Republicans. Meanwhile, Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden takes office, calls for end to 'uncivil war' Senate confirms Biden's intel chief, giving him first Cabinet official McConnell faces conservative backlash over Trump criticism MORE (R-Ky.) accused his colleagues of caring about election chances than the country’s fiscal health. 

“This was the big spending, big government meeting,” Paul said. “They’re bragging about how they’re going to spend more money than the Democrats.” 

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Sen. Mike BraunMichael BraunMcConnell proposes postponing impeachment trial until February The Hill's Morning Report - Biden takes office, calls for end to 'uncivil war' Senate confirms Biden's intel chief, giving him first Cabinet official MORE (R-Ind.) said he was “unlikely” to support the final agreement, adding, “I think the price tag is going to be a deal breaker for many of us regardless of the content.” 

With coronavirus cases climbing across the country, and a slew of bad poll numbers coming out for Trump and Republicans in critical Senate races, Democrats believe they have leverage to drive the talks closer to their top line of roughly $3 trillion. 

“We have the leverage of the American people,” said Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinOvernight Defense: House approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee | Biden to seek five-year extension of key arms control pact with Russia | Two more US service members killed by COVID-19 Senate approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee Bipartisan Senate gang to talk with Biden aide on coronavirus relief MORE (D-Ill.). “I think Republicans are reading the polls. The president is slumping, their Republican Senate candidates are slumping in the polls. They have to show something.” 

The divisions aren’t just between Senate Republicans but also GOP senators and the White House.

GOP senators are critical of the decision to include $1.75 billion for the construction of a new FBI headquarters, saying it has nothing to do with combating the coronavirus. And McConnell and Thune both say they want the funding out of a final agreement. 

Trump, during a White House press conference on Tuesday, called the GOP proposal “sort of semi-irrelevant.” Asked if there were parts he opposed he said “yeah, there are.”

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Meadows and Mnuchin are both floating the idea of doing a pared-down coronavirus bill if negotiators aren’t able to get a deal quickly. Under that plan, Congress would pass a package that includes unemployment insurance, school funding and liability protections, and then continue to negotiate on other pieces like stimulus checks, state and local aid and money for testing. 

But Sen. John CornynJohn CornynLimbaugh falsely says Biden didn't win legitimately while reacting to inauguration Top Texas Democratic Party staffers to step down after underwhelming election results K Street navigates virtual inauguration week MORE (R-Texas) said while people have floated it, "I don't hear any support for that."

When a reporter noted that Meadows and Mnuchin seem interested, he added that those are “people who are not in Congress.”

The inability to sync up played out in real time this week. Mnuchin and Meadows, after talking to Schumer and Pelosi, walked over to McConnell’s office. 

Surrounded by their detail and a gaggle of reporters, they knocked on the front door to his main office. No one answered. As they knocked again, a reporter asked if they had a meeting with the GOP leader or his staff. 

“We were just going to give the leader an update if he’s here,” Meadows told reporters, adding that it was an impromptu drop-by. 

McConnell, a staffer later clarified, had already left the building.